The Bush Administration has grown much more pessimistic in recent weeks about prospects for peaceful reform in the Soviet Union, a senior official acknowledged Wednesday.
“This is the most acute that conditions have been there,” the official said, citing social chaos and concerns about the law-and-order coalition forming around Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
“I don’t know if this is the one that breaks it,” the official said. “Fear and panic are starting to set in there. . . . Things seem to be spinning out of control.
“No one knows the extent of the tightening of control” that lies ahead following the appointment of hard-line officials to run the Interior Ministry, which controls the nation’s police-like security forces, the official said.
“Those were not victories for reformers. If it ends with cleaning up street crime in Moscow, fine. But if they go on to crush political organizations, that’ll be another thing.”
This anxious assessment at the top of the Administration follows a National Intelligence Estimate last month, which predicted that Gorbachev will take increasingly tougher measures between now and spring to restore stability, perhaps even imposing some form of martial law. Gorbachev, in fact, warned Wednesday that he is ready to impose emergency rule in the most troubled areas.
The alternative to this continuing move to the right, said another senior Administration official, would be for Gorbachev to suddenly adopt the more radical reform plans of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Or thirdly, the official said, Gorbachev could continue as now, but he would become more and more irrelevant and the country would slide toward anarchy.
The Administration recognizes that it can do relatively little to affect events in Moscow directly. But at the same time, if there is any reversal of the reform processes, whether political, economic or in respect for human rights, officials have said, the United States will be forced to condemn it and perhaps even impose sanctions.
Such U.S. moves would undoubtedly chill the movement toward normalizing Moscow-Washington relations and cooperation in Third World crises like the Persian Gulf, officials fear. Also jeopardized would be prospects for completing and ratifying the conventional and nuclear arms agreements.
Until now, the Administration’s most anxious moment came last spring, when Moscow threatened to crush the independence movement of Lithuania with force. But that crisis was not as intense as today, the senior Administration official said this week.
“The countryside is conducting warfare against the cities,” the official continued, “using food as the weapon. Almost nothing works. There is a crisis in political authority. No one is quite sure who can make decisions. There is an overwhelming fear and preoccupation with getting through this coming winter.”
The Administration’s concern, the official said, has been conveyed to Soviet officials and was reflected publicly in muted form in President Bush’s remarks last week. In announcing food and other short-term economic aid to Moscow following his meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Edward A. Shevardnadze here, Bush said:
“We discussed frankly the relationship of economic change in the Soviet Union to the critical task of democratization, and I reiterated (to Shevardnadze) our strong desire to see both political and economic reform continue because they are inextricably linked.”
“We felt it was an important time to send a strong message,” the official said of Bush’s remarks, “that reform and the continuation of reform is what we support. Not one man. Not the name of something, like perestroika. But the process.”